Sorting Fact From Fiction When It Comes To Online Health Advice

A psychology professor once told me there are two kinds of people. Even as I write that I’m aware that’s an oh-so-psychology-professor type thing to say. I was 20 and about to start a pre-med summer internship sticking tiny electrodes onto peoples’ scalps. Win. Prof had just asked me whether I’d read an important email he’d sent the week before, and I’d sheepishly admitted that I must’ve missed it. “Tidy up that inbox”. He said it looking over his glasses, lips pursed like a zipper; the epitome of the role he represented. “There are two types of people you know, Kieran”. He’d grinned then but said no more, and the conversation moved on. I remember that I was left thinking; (a) that really was an annoyingly psychology professor type thing to say, but also (b) if there were two types of people based on email inbox, well, which one was I?

Two Types of People

‘Spam’ (the non-canned variety of course) is defined as “irrelevant or unsolicited messages sent over the internet, typically…..with commercial or nefarious intent”. You know the messages I’m meaning. Some politely inform you you’ve won the lotto in another country (“please enter your bank account here”), while others announce boldly that THIS DEAL WON’T LAST LONG. What they all have in common is a lot of promise without a whole lot of delivery. But it turns out that common knowledge does back that ole prof was on to something all those years ago; in the world of inbox organising there really are two types of people. And in the world of online health, there’s two types of information.

Let’s take Person A. Person A lets his inbox fill up with whatever slides on into it it. Emails from Mum and Zoom invites from work with click bait spam of all flavours. His inbox is a veritable dumping ground for anything and everything that manages to find its way in there. Person A’s mailbox icon has the number ‘1,394’ over it at the bottom of his phone. Oh yea, you know the one. Person B on the other hand is a digital Marie Kondo. Mail is moved as quickly as its received. Junk is tagged and banished to the bin (did it you spark joy?). Folders for everything from ‘Work’ to ‘Home’ to ‘Dog’ are primed to perfection. Person A likely thinks B has too much time on their hands. Person B likely thinks A is a sadist (and secretly fantasises about Kondo-ing the shit out of that inbox as soon as possible).

There’s no right or wrong way to do life a la email inbox, and chances are you’re somewhere in between. The interesting thing? It turns out the same is true when it comes to our mental inbox and the mail we’re receiving each and every day when it comes to pursuing health info online.

Health Spam?

False information related to health has been labelled by the World Health Organisation as a modern day epidemic. It’s a battle for your brain space. For your mental and emotional inbox. It’s a battle for behaviour, and one where the end game is your time, your body and (more to the point) your wallet.

Health is inherently motivating, particularly in a world where everything we eat, drink, wear, touch and do is sold to us with a health related hashtag. We’re motivated to seek health, and we’re emotionally driven to it. Anxiety around illness and death, and promises of bigger, better, lives are intimately coupled to health behaviour. And, in 2021, they’re coupled to big business too. Hundreds of thousands of health and wellbeing related websites exist (hello 🙋‍♂️), and even conservative estimates posit that less than half are actually written or reviewed by people who who know what they’re talking about. Add social media to the modern mix and you’ve got an even bigger recipe for spam potential.

So what are the need to knows when it comes to health spam? And better yet, how exactly do we Kondo the crap out of that inbox to make sure we’re getting the messages that really count?

1. Reply All

Trying new means of feeling happier and healthier isn’t a bad thing, but we need to be conscious and careful about it. Research shows that we’re actually more likely to believe information related to medical and health unquestioned compared to other types of information online, and so it’s important not only to ask how something might be right but (more importantly) how it might be wrong. Get into the habit of questioning what you read online when it comes to health and have this as step number one.

2. Return to Sender

A key part of staying on top of health spam relates to asking who sent it. It’s incredibly tempting to take on advice and opinions online, and studies show that’s particularly powerful from those in a place of status or influence. Organise your mental inbox and stick to taking information from those with the expertise or experience to dish out what they’re serving up. Celebrity chef advice likely best falls under ‘Cooking’, while most of that from legitimate health services and experts can be message moved to ‘Health’. Trust me here – bio-energisers sold from said chefs do not cure inflammation and, on the flip side, I really can’t cook. You can also earn a doctorate in most areas of study, so instead of taking medical advice from a Dr of data security, heed information from a medically trained professional.

3. Don’t Hit the Link

In the same way a lot of those spam emails try to tempt us with promises of more money, better savings and longer appendages, the world of health spam is full of promises it can’t keep either. Health is incredibly complex and when products or practices promise multiple outcomes with seemingly little links toward them then this should always ring alarm bells. Want better skin, shinier hair, increased libido, lower anxiety, a less leaky gut and more motivation? Chances are sunning your butthole for 5 minutes like that influencer said won’t offer them up (sorry). The adage of ‘if sounds too good to be true it probably is’, actually has substance here.

4. Double Click

A solid tip from experts who’ve made fighting health misinformation their mission is to always dig a little deeper. Make it a habit to google (more than once) information or advice you see about products or practices related to health. Particularly on social media, the type of information we receive is often carefully filtered and chosen to align with what we’ve already read or shared. It’s vital we do a deeper search before we eat, try out, rub on or cut out foods that claim to impact wellbeing.

5. Forward On

There’s power in info online, and that’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not without its dangers. So before we hit that forward button, it’s wise to remember that a single share on socials can ripple outwards and influence hundreds, if not thousands. Stop and question what you’re sharing before you share it, particularly if it is health related. Better still, forward questions on to those who might be able offer expert insight. Before making a major move or purchase when it comes to health it’s always wise to make an appointment and ask your doctor first.

A or B?

So whether we’re Person A or Person B when it comes to our actual email, it’s important we know who we are when it comes to the mental inbox online. There’s a tonne of health information out there, and not all of it speaks the truth. “There are two types of people you know, Kieran”. I can hear prof’s words there still. Because in the case of health spam I think we’d be wise to all get a little more onside with Person B.

It’s time we tidy up that (mental) inbox when it comes to soaking up health information online. Because while there might be two types of people, there’s also two types of information when it comes to the health of your body and mind. And we need to protect ourselves from that which is false. So while I don’t think I’ll ever be someone without a sub-4 digit number hanging over that email inbox icon, when it comes to health spam I’m pretty sure I finally know which type of person I am and I want to keep the count at zero. Power to you prof.